BELLINGHAM — Dozens of people prayed, sang and spoke passionately around a 16-foot totem pole in the shape of an orca during a blessing and naming ceremony at the Lummi Tribal Center here on Thursday. The event kicked off the second day of its journey across the country to raise awareness of Tokitae, an orca that has been held captive in a tiny tank at the Miami Seaquarium for 47 years.
Tokitae was captured in Penn Cove off Whidbey Island in 1970 when she was five years old during a brutal round up.
She is the last of the estimated 40 young whales who were captured from the Salish Sea and sent to marine parks. Her mother, also believed to be alive, and her family lives off the coast of Washington and Canada.
The whale, whose stage name is Lolita, performs in shows daily and lives in a tank that is 80 feet by 35 feet in length and 20 feet deep at its deepest point. Tokitae is about 25 feet long, 8,000 pounds and shares the tank with two dolphins. Her mate died in 1980 and she has been alone since. She is the world’s oldest captive orca.
Lolita/Tokitae is part of the Southern resident killer whale population, which has been listed as endangered. As a captive mammal, she was added to the Endangered Species Act in 2015. But in 2016, a U.S. district judge ruled that though the Endangered Species Act applies to her, her care and well-being is not egregious enough to be in violation.
The pole, along with two others carved as dolphins, will be strapped to a trailer. It will accompany Lummi tribal members and environmentalists rallying for the release of the whale back to a natural setting off the coast of Orcas Island. The group, stopping at cities along the way, is expected to arrive in Miami on May 27.
The whale’s plight has been highlighted in several films: The Killer Whale People and Lolita: Slave to Entertainment. The 2013 film Blackfish also raised awareness about orcas in captivity and resulted in a huge public outcry.
“All of nature is crying out across the country,” said Douglas James Sr., one of the Lummi House of Tears carvers along with his brother Jewell Jones. The pole creates “this beautiful symbol of truth,” he says.
A whale held captive in a tank, Jones argued, is the equivalent of being locked in a jail cell. “The two other whales that were in there banged their heads against the wall until they died,” he said.
Jones said the corporation that owns Lolita/Tokitae, Palace Entertainment, has said the whale will not be released. “She has a right to come home,” Jones argues.
In a statement, the seaquarium said it would be “reckless and cruel” to move the orca. “Miami Seaquarium has the utmost respect for the Lummi Nation and the services that the Lummi Business Council provides to its people. However, the members of the Lummi Business Council are not marine mammal experts and are misguided when they offer a proposal that is not in the best interest of Lolita the orca,” the statement reads.
“Moving Lolita to Puget Sound, what is now a foreign environment to her, would not only expose her to a wide variety of new health threats, but doing so could pose the same risks to the wild killer whale population. We will not allow her life to be treated as an experiment and we will not jeopardize her health by considering such a risky move,” the statement continues.
Tlingit tribal elder Anna Haala of Everett is 84 years old — the same age Tokitae’s mother is believed to be. She has seen Tokitae at the Seaquarium twice. “It’s so sad to confine a wild thing in such a small space away from her family, away from her natural surroundings,” she said.
In a statement, Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, said: “Tokitae’s abduction from her home should serve as a warning to all of us about the failure of policy to protect the marine life of the Salish Sea. She is a part of our precious ecosystem and a member of our Salish family. There are constant assaults on our lands and waters, whether it’s from the fossil fuel industry that puts profits over the health of people, animals and our environment, or from invasive species introduced to our waters that threaten the health of native species of salmon.”
“Three years ago, I received this message that the whale is crying out to us,” said James, a master carver. “She wants to go home.”
The group hopes the owners of the Seaquarium will meet with it when it arrives in Miami.
For more information about the totem pole journey check out SacredSea.org
On Saturday, June 16th rallies will be held around the world. In Seattle it will occur at 12:00pm, 1201 Alaskan Way.
This story ran concurrently in Crosscut.